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Alumni Spotlight: Mayra Donaji Barrera Machuca

June 18, 2021
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Mayra Donaji Barrera Machuca received her PhD from SIAT in 2020. During her time at SIAT, Mayra studied primarily human-computer interaction and the perceptual and cognitive limitations of humans when working in virtual environments. Mayra is currently part of the data analytics team at Virtro and will be joining the Faculty of Computer Science at Dalhousie University as an assistant professor.

Why did you choose the School of Interactive Arts & Technology?

The School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) is one of the best places for HCI research in Canada and I wanted to study with the best. Also, during my Master's degree, I was constantly referencing the work of SIAT professor Dr. Wolfgang Stuerzlinger on 3D user interfaces. Based on these two reasons, when it was time to do my PhD, I decided to join the VVISE lab, and I applied to SIAT.

What was your research focus at SIAT?

My main area of research is HCI, which means human-computer interaction. Inside HCI, my research is about studying the perceptual and cognitive limitations of humans when working in virtual environments. I also design user interfaces for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Specifically, during my PhD, I created user interfaces to help people sketch in VR. For example, one of my user interfaces called Smart3DGuides used visual guides to help users identify errors when planning a stroke.

What is your current career?

At Virtro, I am part of the data analytics team. Virtro is a company that uses VR to train people in a specific skill, for example, giving a speech, applying for a job, or taking care of a patient. My job is to analyze the data collected during the training to provide personalized feedback to the user regarding their learning. For example, I compare the movement and actions of novices and experts inside the virtual environment to identify differences in their performance. Once I compare their performance, I identify the errors users make and provide suggestions to prevent those errors.

After finishing my PhD, I got a postdoctoral position at the City University of Hong Kong to build AR interfaces that help people design objects. However, due to COVID-19, I had to go back to Vancouver after only being in Hong Kong for 3 months. Once I was back in Vancouver, I contacted different professors about possible job opportunities. Luckily, Steve DiPaola, one member of my PhD’s supervisory committee, liked working with me and wanted to continue doing it. Steve has a good relationship with Virtro, and we pitched them our idea to use 3D Spatio-temporal for user assessment. Virtro liked the idea, and together we applied for a MITACS fellowship.

For fall 2021, I will join the Faculty of Computer Science at Dalhousie University as an assistant professor. In this job, I will continue studying the effect of working in virtual environments on humans with the goal to design better 3D user interfaces for VR and AR.

How did your experience as a graduate student help shape your career path?

It showed me that being a researcher means many things. Yes, you can be the person in charge of running user studies, but also you can be the person analyzing the data or even deciding how to apply this knowledge in the product.

For my current job at Virtro, I’m using a lot of the skills I acquired during my PhD that weren’t part of my main research. From learning statistics to learning the best way to capture data in a VR application. Let's just say that after spending four years analyzing data to understand the impact of human and technical limitations on user performance it gets easy to apply this knowledge somewhere else as a full-time job.

What are the most important skills that you acquired as a PhD student that helped shape your career success?

At SIAT, I learned to justify and defend my decisions regarding a research project. As a researcher, this an important skill to have because every piece of work you put out there is going to be reviewed. I was lucky that Wolfgang Stuerlinger, my supervisor, was always happy to provide feedback. I remember fondly many discussions we had waiting in line at Tim Hortons about the different projects we worked on together.

I also learned to always consider the human element. This sounds obvious, but for areas like user performance analysis or user modelling, it is quite easy to forget the people and just focus on the data. For example, when studying the effect of the stereo display deficiencies on 3D pointing, my first extension of Fitts’ Law used a cosine in the equation. Yet, the human movement I was modelling (straight arm movements) does not follow a cosine movement. In other words, even if the results of the data fit seemed good, they were wrong. Luckily, Wolfgang noticed this, and we were able to fix it for the final version.

What was your most valuable graduate student experience while at SIAT?

I got an internship at Adobe Research in spring 2017. This experience helped me see how an industrial lab worked. It also showed me that the research I was doing at SIAT was cutting edge and novel enough that a top-research lab was interested in following up.

Besides this, I gained good friends at SIAT. I have memories of us going to eat together or even having some movie nights at the lab. I also gained a good mentor, as Wolfgang is always happy to have a quick chat. He even helped me navigate the academic job market, which is extremely competitive.

Do you have any advice that you would like to share with current students or recent graduates?

For current students, I would recommend deciding on your future career as soon as possible as the type of work you want to do will define the steps to take to achieve it. For recent graduates, my advice is to do not forget your professors, as they can help you even after your graduation.